The Brazilian melodrama Invisible Life opens with a dreamy, ominous sequence that makes no attempt to conceal its metaphorical aims. Two young women – whom the viewer eventually learns are the sisters Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Julia Stockler) – wander barefoot through a coastal rainforest that swims with the diffuse haze of early morning (or perhaps twilight). The sisters quickly lose track of one another amid the gloom and undergrowth, and the density of the forest is such that they could be within a stone’s throw of one another and never know it. This maybe-dream sequence serves as blatant but potent allegory for the heartbreaking circumstances that will characterize the lives of these two women, and director Karim Aïnouz returns to it periodically, via insert shots of the sisters among the cool shadows and twining vines. The anxiety inherent in this scene lies not in the locale – Eurídice and Guida seem perfectly at ease in this wild, equatorial setting – but in the sisters’ isolation from one another.
Beginning in 1950s Rio de Janeiro, Aïnouz’s film follows Eurídice and Guida from their late adolescence through adulthood. Their lives will be marked by misfortune and haunted by thwarted dreams. The paths the sisters take are dissimilar, but their tribulations have the same origin: Their father, Manoel (António Fonseca), is a dictatorial traditionalist who seems incapable of any emotion other than cold wrath. A baker by trade, he’s eager to parade his daughters before eligible, older suitors, but the sisters have other ambitions. Guida is the wild child, a romantic who sneaks out at night to rendezvous with her illicit boyfriend, Iorgos (Nikolas Antunes), a Greek merchant marine. Eurídice, meanwhile, is the more straitlaced sibling, a piano prodigy who yearns to study music at a Viennese conservatory. The bond between the sisters is self-evidently close and heartfelt. When Guida abruptly leaves for Greece with her lover, Eurídice reacts with an anguish befitting the loss of her oldest and truest friend. However, it’s hard to blame Guida for fleeing such a repressive home life, given that she lacks the talent and discipline that will open doors for her sister – or so she assumes.
Unfortunately, Guida’s decision has tragic repercussions for both sisters. Her escape intensifies the pressure on Eurídice to marry an older man, the nominally successful but emotionally childish Antenor (Gregorio Duvivier). It’s a miserable union from the start, as Antenor effectively rapes a drunken Eurídice on their wedding night – a deeply uncomfortable scene that Aïnouz shoots in a manner that maximizes its anti-erotic ugliness. Antenor is a petty narcissist who demands simple-minded servility from his wife. He’s also dismissive of Eurídice’s musical ambitions: Why can't she just be content to play her piano at home? Eurídice’s efforts to prevent pregnancy before her conservatory audition prove futile, and he quickly finds herself trapped in a narrowly defined domestic existence. In voiceover narration, she reads the voluminous correspondence that she sends to Guida in Greece as the years roll on. These letters overflow with emotion, frankly describing Eurídice’s unhappy life and her enduring sorrow over her sister’s long absence.
Guida never responds to these letters, but not out of callousness. In truth, Guida returns to Rio de Janeiro not long after Eurídice’s marriage, showing up on her parents’ doorstep very pregnant and ready to shamefacedly admit that she made a mistake in running off with Iorgos. Her father is unmoved, however: In a scene of staggering cruelty, he disowns Guida and throws her out into the street. What’s more, he tells her a vicious lie, claiming that Eurídice has moved to Vienna. Despondent, Guida ends up settling in the city’s slums, falling in with the older, good-natured Filomena (Bárbara Santos), an ex-prostitute living in a modest little house bequeathed to her by a former client. Guida manages to land a strenuous but reliable job in the shipyards, and over time she, her young son, and Filomena establish a makeshift family of sorts. Guida possesses a latent vivaciousness that the world’s meanness can’t quite extinguish – she still loves to go dancing at night – but life as a working single mother in mid-century Brazil is predictably harsh and demanding. She documents her joys and travails in letters to Eurídice, sending them to her mother so that they can be forwarded to her sister’s address in Austria.
In this way, the sisters end up dwelling in the same city for decades, tragically unaware that they are separated by only a few miles and one rung on the class ladder. At 139 minutes, Invisible Life is the sort of romantic and domestic epic that has largely gone out of fashion in the U.S., even on the arthouse circuit. Once upon a time, this sort of woman-centered melodrama was the forte of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Invisible Life bears a particular resemblance to the director’s Martha (1974) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978). Aïnouz’s feature captures something of Fassbinder’s sensibility, but with a distinctive tropical vibrancy and a looser approach to narrative. The Dickensian soapiness of the film’s plot – including a crushing scene where the sisters almost glimpse one another at a restaurant on Christmas Eve – is freshened and rendered less contrived by Aïnouz’s ellipses-heavy storytelling. The dates on Eurídice and Guida’s letters function as chronological signposts, but Invisible Life isn’t interested in hand-holding, preferring to tumble relentlessly forward through the sisters’ twinned sagas, trusting that the viewer can keep up.
The rare non-English-language production snapped up and distributed stateside by Amazon, Invisible Life was adapted by Murilo Hauser from Brazilian writer Martha Batalha’s breakout 2016 novel, with additional screenplay credits to Inés Bortagaray and director Aïnouz. (The film’s European marketing retains the book’s wordier title The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.) It’s a story that’s sharply attuned to the monolithic social, religious, and economic forces that curb women’s choices, as well as the day-to-day abuse perpetrated by the individual men who claim to love them. It’s also a film that richly conveys its mid-century Brazilian setting without the affected “historical drag” of so many period dramas. The saturated colors of Hélène Louvart’s cinematography are key in this respect – they give the whole film the look of a Kodachrome artifact – but so are the splendidly unshowy, lived-in production design and costumes by Rodrigo Martirena and Marina Franco, respectively.
There are viewers who will undoubtedly find Invisible Life’s unremitting bleakness more than they can stomach. Although the story features some scattered moments of happiness, there’s no denying that Aïnouz’s film often feels like a cavalcade of miseries, particularly regarding Eurídice’s toxic marriage and quashed ambitions. Indeed, for all that Guida struggles with the grim realities of life as a “shamed woman”, she seems to discover a modest contentment that eludes her ostensibly better-off sister, who slides into mingled despair and resentment as her world closes in around her. (It’s certainly not unintentional that Eurídice’s namesake was laid low in the prime of her life by a viper’s bite and thereafter damned to the dismal halls of Hades.) It’s only in the film’s unexpected, decades-later coda that something like narrative satisfaction is permitted to peek through the darkness, as a flurry of correspondence finally reaches the right hands – long overdue but just in time to make a difference.